Though often lumped in to the category of plants, mushrooms actually belong to an entirely different kingdom of life – Kingdom Fungi. Mushrooms and fungi are a category all to themselves, and are sometimes considered to be more similar to an animal than they are to a plant. Their complex networks of mycelium are just beginning to be understood by the scientific community, as are their gamut of nutritional and medicinal functions.
Humans have been interacting with fungus in their landscapes for thousands of years, evolving alongside them and incorporating their medicines into our long lived traditions. For hundreds of years, the world of culinary arts has recognized mushrooms as delicacies, and specific mushrooms are prized in many countries – think white truffles of France, matsutake in Japan, or morels, which are foraged worldwide. More recently – particularly over the past 10 years – medicinal mushrooms have become the spotlight of both tradition-based herbal medicine and modern nutrition science for their robust nutrient density and broad scope of therapeutic benefits.
Mushrooms are dense in micronutrients, including a range of B vitamins, selenium, zinc and copper, and smaller amounts of magnesium and potassium. But beyond their vitamin and mineral content, mushrooms offer an impressive number of valuable medicinal compounds. Of these, the most well known are polysaccharides – specific forms of carbohydrates that interact with our gut ecology and modulate our immune systems. In practical terms, this means consumption of both culinary and medicinal mushrooms can help improve our gut function and support our immune health. Because polysaccharides are water-soluble, the best way to benefit from these compounds are by cooking and eating mushrooms whole, by making a water extraction such as a tea or infusion, or by using the mushrooms in a ground or powdered form.
Beyond the polysaccharide content, mushrooms also boast extremely high antioxidant contents. Chaga mushrooms – a wild foraged conk found on birch – are said to have one of the highest antioxidant contents of any food source. Other beneficial phytochemicals in mushrooms include saponins, terpenoids, and polyphenols, including quercetin and various flavonoids. These compounds account for the range of therapeutic effects of medicinal mushrooms. For example, reishi is used as a tonic, an immune modulator, and for its positive effect on anxiety, stress, and sleep. Cordyceps has a long history of use for improving physical endurance, athletic performance, and increases cellular energy production. Lion’s mane is used both as a culinary mushroom and medicinally for supporting memory, learning capacity, and protecting neuron health in the brain. There are countless varieties of mushrooms with medicinal value, with an endless number of therapeutic applications.
Mushrooms are an extremely valuable source of both nutrition and medicine from Kingdom Fungi. They are very accessible, as wild mushrooms grow in almost any terrain, and therefore can be easily acquired almost universally for little to no cost. Their versatility is broad, as they can be used in traditional preparations according to herbal medicine, or used in more of a culinary context, being added to bone broth, teas, soups or sauces.
A few of my favourite varieties of culinary mushrooms that grow locally on Vancouver Island include golden and white chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, lobster mushrooms, hedgehogs, matsutake (pine mushrooms), porcini, lions mane and bear head mushrooms, chicken of the woods, shaggy mane, and morels. Medicinal varieties include turkey tails, artist conk, west coast reishi, and lion’s mane. Please note that this list is nowhere near exhaustive, but simply a summary of my favourites. It’s also important to point out that there is a big overlap in the “culinary” and “medicinal” categories, as these are not scientifically distinguished.
Enjoy the process of increasing your health and deepening your connection to the local terrain by exploring the world of mushrooms!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.